Tag Archives: global leadership

Toward Benign Global Leadership in a Post-Trumpist World Order

7 Jun

Toward Benign Global Leadership in a Post-Trumpist World Order

 

[Prefatory Note: This is a revisionof a post that was published as #534 on May 14, 2018 inthe TRANSCEND Media Service with the title “World Order After the Cold War.” This essay discusses possible future geopolitical relationships that might provide beneficial global leadership, much needed if current world order challenges are to be met this side of catastrophe.]

 

 

The Cold War ended abruptly and surprisingly, not only preceded by the Gorbachev softening of the ideological dimension but his offers to the world of an uplifting alternative to geopolitical rivalry and predatory neoliberal globalization:  war prevention and common security, as well as internal democratizing reforms crystallized by the Russian words glasnostand perestroika. At first, it seemed to sympathetic observers an overhaul of socialism that resembled the program of reform that Franklin Roosevelt had put into practice in the United States during to rescue the country from the depths of the Great Depression. Missing a goldenopportunity for global reform the West watched with triumphal glee as the Soviet system unraveled. Instead of lending this innovative leader in Moscow a helping hand the United States did all it could do to hastenthe Soviet collapse. How different, and better, the world might have been if Washingtonhad sought to make Gorbachev’s Kremliin the redesignof world order along humanistic lines!

 

This lost opportunity to transform the negative bipolarity of the Cold War era in the direction of positive bipolarity illustrated a historically significant failure of moral and political imagination. The essence of positive bipolarity would have involved transformations of the war system and predatory capitalism as the basis of world order. This would be combined with an embrace of common security at the level of sovereign states, human security as the level of society, and a reliance on robust lawmaking multilateralism in the face of such global challenges as nuclear weaponry, climate change, acute poverty, and migration.

 

The aftermath of the Cold War exhibited several forms of dysfunctionality: failures by the Amercan-led West to recognize and act upon a new global agenda that served the human interestrather than continue to pursue geopolitical ambitionsby relying on coercive diplomacy, an inadequately regulated world economy,  and militarist leverage. With a variety of global disasters in the offing, it is more urgent than ever to explore whether there remains an emergent possibility of positive forms of world order.  A brief overview of what went wrong after the Cold War ended serves as a prelude to exploring what might be put right, although not at all likely to happen without transnational revolutionary ferment in support of humane global governance.

 

 

The Failed Response: Unipolarity

 

With the Cold War over, a unipolar moment appeared to be the most accurate way of regarding the geopolitical structure of world politics after this geopolitically painless ending of Cold War bipolarity, fortunately occurring without an accompanying major warfare or civil strife. The United States despite the wide open window of opportunity, seemed to take no notice, and instead built a bridge to nowhere called ‘full spectrum dominance.’

 

It does appear in retrospect that U.S. suffered from a paralyzing version of triumphalism after the Soviet collapse, glorified in  various shortsighted narratives of its victory, most influentially, perhaps, by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. Establishment gurus supported the American-led response to Iraq’s attack and annexation of Kuwait in 1990, especially with the backing of the peacekeeping consensus at the UN, and a ringing proclamation by George H.W. Bush of ‘a new world order.’ He based this enthusiasm on the apparent new potential for P-5 cooperation under U.S. leader and a more active UN role, finally seeming to fulfill Charter intentions. Unfortunately, these hopes were never thought through, and proved in any event to be transitory.

 

The Bush, Sr. presidency showed quickly its lack of commitment to the emergence of a new world order beyond the opportunistic and temporary relevance of the label to help mobilize an anti-Iraq consensus to support a legally questionable recourse to war. The idea that this was the beginning of more serious forms of collective global governance in the aftermath of the Cold War was just not present in the American political imaginary. Rather the low causality efficiency of the military operations that achieved an easy victory in the Gulf War overcame the lingering so-called Vietnam  Syndrome, thereby restoring the confidence of the U.S. in the relevance of its military prowess. Not since the humbling defeat in Vietnam was there any public belief that the war machine could prevail quickly in time and at acceptable costs.

 

Bill Clinton’s presidency was no more capable of shaping a constructive international response to the new realities of international life than had been the elder Bush. Clinton promoted the predatory capitalist view of the new world order by giving priority to the efficiency of transnational capital at the expense of the wellbeing of people. This goal of facilitating the transnational flow of capital contributed to a perverse shift of ideological emphasis from Keynesian to neoliberal economics, further marginalizing concern for the harmful human consequences of unregulated markets, setting the stage for various forms of trouble. This shift to neoliberalism is significantly responsible for the severe inequalities that now afflict the internal public orders of many states, as well as insufficient attention to global warming. The resulting alienation helps explain the rise of freely elected autocrats whose popularity rests on a mindless hostility to the established order.

 

Perhaps the most tragic effect of such responses to the end of the Cold War was the lost opportunity to exert two major forms of positive U.S. leadership: seriously proposing international negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament and other forms of demilitarization; and strengthening the UN by adding non-Western permanent members to the Security Council to reflect the new geopolitical landscape, as well as confining the veto to circumstances of self-defense.

 

The 1990s did achieve a temporary depolarization in international relations yet without accompanying normative improvements by strengthening international institutions to uphold global interests. U.S. leadership was focused on narcissistic geopolitics lacking even a self-interested long-term vision. This kind of lapse was further aggravated by the rise of neoconservative influence in the U.S. that favored relying on military superiority to promote strategic interests, especially in the Middle East.

 

 

Mishandling Mega-Terrorism After 9/11

 

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were apparently the work of a non-state actor, heralding two broad developments affecting the structure and processes of world order: first, the resecuritizing of international relations, which meant reasserting the primacy of politics over economics as the vector of geopolitical behavior; secondly, deciding that the proper response to the attacks should be shaped by the war paradigm rather than the crime paradigm, which had been relied upon in the past by governments when dealing with terrorism.

 

In one respect, the war on terror was an extension of unipolarity, especially given the political logic articulated by George W. Bush to the effect, ‘you are either with us, or with the terrorists.’ Beyond this demand for solidarity with the counterterrorist side, there is the sense that territorial sovereignty of any country can be legally breached if its government is unable or unwilling to eliminate terrorists from its soil. There are no safe havens if the entire world becomes the battlefield.

 

The decision of the Bush Jr. presidency to treat the 9/11 attacks as ‘war’ rather ‘crime’ has caused many concerns about civilizational decline, and the abandonment of international law and common humanity. The names Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are appropriately invoked to epitomize what went perversely wrong in the response to 9/11, considering the early attempt to portray the conflict as pitting the evil terrorists against the benevolent democrats.

 

As with the earlier failure to take advantage of the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attack were another lost opportunity to enhance world order by devising a regime of common security. Such a regime could be adapted to regulating non-state violent political crimes and transnational extremist movements by inter-governmental police cooperation, as abetted in exceptional circumstances by paramilitary and military tactics.

 

The 9/11 response by way of a series of controversial and costly international wars that failed to achieve their security goals despite a massive military commitment weakened international law, the UN, and multilateralism generally. It also seriously compromised the quality and reputation of democratic life in liberal societies by its excessive encroachment on civil and political rights.

 

While the U.S. was engaged in military adventurism at a time when war was losing its historical agency, China, India, Brazil, Russia were gaining influence and making impressive developmental progress. The G-20 was established to create a more representative venue for global economic policy but its lack of institutionalization and authority are part of a confusing situation that features inadequate and incoherent international regulation of the world economy. States, led by the United States increasingly rely on narrowly nationalistic economic policies posing rising risks of trade wars and regressive forms of protectionism. What has emerged is an ineffectual form of multipolarity that leaves at risk the agendas of trade, investment, and development. In relation to global security there seems to be emerging an amalgam of military unipolarity without political effectiveness, exhibiting a helpless passivity with respect to repeated atrocities and massacres, typified by pathetic responses to the Syrian War raging since 2011 and the failure to protect the people of Gaza subject to repeated abuse by Israel over the course of many years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alternatives to Anemic Multipolarity

 

The sort of anemic multipolarity (as distorted by an inept unipolar militarism)just described is inherently unstable given the increasing tensions and harms resulting from insufficiently attended contemporary challenges of global scope. As seems obvious, either a creative alternative will emerge or there is likely to be a series of regressive trends and events associated with worsening conditions arising from one or more of these unmet world order challenges. The most plausible positive alternatives under these conditions are benevolent leadership for either multilateralism or bipolarity. The assumption here is that the United States under Trump, as complemented by a reactionary and unprincipled Congress, is no longer motivated or capable of exercising the kind of leadership role that it had assumed since 1945, admittedly always with mixed results from the perspective of humane values.

 

            What might multilateralism with benevolent leadership mean?China has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for soft power extension of influence together with the greatest surge of economic growth in all of history. China seems to have a mature and realistic appreciation of the need for global problem solving and management of global warming, nuclear policy, and the world economy. Whether it can deliver the kind of globally oriented

leadership needed at this stage of history is an unanswered question. As the most promising nextglobal leader China will need to overcome several obstacles: the fact that Chinese is not spoken outside its borders; China lacks a globally traded currency; China has little experience in global, as distinct from regional, diplomacy; China has a poor human rights record at home; and Chinese ideology, itself now rather obscure, is without many foreign adherents even if its own practice seems pragmatically motivated.

 

 

Maybe it is premature to count the United States as out of the leadership game. It seems possible, maybe likely, that the Trump presidency will, in one way or another, be rejected by means other than global catastrophe, that is, by electoral rejection, impeachment, resignation. It also seems that a progressive backlash to Trumpism will occur in the United States and perhaps elsewhere, as well as a rejection of the recent global wave of exclusivist nationalism. A new global mood might be receptive to a  revival of creative multilateralism, vitality for the UN and other international institutions, and display support for more compassionate global public policy processes that are not narrowly focused on national interests, and more attuned to the promotion of global and human interests.

 

A variant of this kind of more hopeful world order scenario would result from a new global political atmosphere induced by a shared recognition of urgent challenges. Such an atmosphere could lead to what might be called benevolent bipolarityin which the United States and China collaborate much as wartime alliances have produced strong cooperative relations temporarily bonding heretofore antagonistic political actors. This was the case with the anti-fascist coalition. Such bipolarity would complement multilateralism by concentrating policymaking in these two governmental centers of authority, status, influence, and capabilities. It would extend their current reach to encompass common and human securitysystems that gradually rendered the war system obsolete and discredited reliance on coercive geopolitics. During this process security would increasingly be assessed from the perspectives of human rights, global justice, civilizational equality, and ecological sustainability.

 

Such a reframing of policy formation in the domain of security would achieve a new kind of two-level world order: (1) leadership exercised by the collaborative efforts of China and the United States; (2) multilateral lawmaking and humane policy pursued by states, as influenced by and coordinated with civil society actors around the world.

 

 

 

 

A Concluding Remark

 

We are living in a period of radical uncertainty, although increasingly imperiled by palpable world order challenges. The dominant current trend is highly problematic, configured by various expressions of resurgent and exclusivist nationalism that is irresponsibly unresponsive to an array of global challenges. It is highly unstable because the challenges on the global agenda urgently require an unprecedented scale of cooperation and global leadership or catastrophe is almost certain to follow. We hope for the best, especially the resilience and mobilization of civil society accompanied by the reemergence of visionary leaders of state and non-state actors sensitive to and creative about meeting the array of global challenges.

 

What is politically feasibleat this point will not do. The peoples of the world deserve and require a politics that recognizes what is necessaryand aspires and acts to attain what is desirable.A first step in the right direction is a recognition of the vital role that could be played by greater trust in what might be called the public imagination.

 

 

 

 

 

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Pope Francis and Religious Cosmopolitanism

10 Jan

 

Points of Departure 

Perhaps, the most hopeful recent development in human affairs is the emergence of Pope Francis as the voice of global conscience. Although Francis speaks with papal authority to the 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, he also increasingly speaks with human authority to the rest of us. How significantly this voice will resonate might be viewed as the ultimate test as to whether ‘soft power’ is overcoming the geopolitical death dance that imperils the human species as never before.

 

When visiting occupied Palestine in May of 2014 Francis prayed at the notorious Israeli separation wall in Palestine that the World Court had ordered dismantled as unlawful back in 2004. The pontiff chose to pray near a scrawled graffiti that read ‘Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.’ While in the Holy Land Francis articulated what justice should mean in relation to the Palestinian reality: the pope called the existing situation ‘increasingly unacceptable,’ defied Israel by speaking of the ‘State of Palestine’ while touring the West Bank, and urged the establishment of a ‘sovereign homeland’ for the Palestinian people where there would be freedom of movement (so long denied). By this visit and declaration, Pope Francis indirectly underscored the ethical insight of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu that after the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, the great symbolic moral challenge directed at the conscience of humanity is the empowerment and liberation of the Palestinian people. Such an affirmation also confirms Francis’ credentials as an independent world leader who will not defer to Washington’s craven submission to Israel’s continuous trampling upon Palestinian rights.

 

More broadly, Pope Francis has made it repeatedly clear that he is a critic of global inequality and of a capitalist world economic system that has produced ‘plunder of nature,’ a ‘frenetic rhythm of consumption,’ and worship of ‘the god of money.’ Above all, according to the German cardinal, Walter Kasper, this is a pope who “wants to lead faith and morality back to their original center” in authentic religious experience. Such leadership is definitely taking a form that is responsive to the array of unmet global challenges that threaten future harm to all peoples in the world, as well as to those most marginalized and vulnerable due to their particular circumstances. The spirit and substance of Pope Francis’ pastoral ministry is clearly within the framework of the Roman Catholic tradition, but its outreach is essentially ecumenical, touching deeply all who care about spirituality, survival, and global justice.

 

The Failures of Secular Global Leadership

 

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 there was a hope throughout the world that he would provide the kind of inspirational leadership that could nurture political confidence in the human future. Surely, such expectations are the only conceivable explanation for awarding Obama the Nobel Peace Prize the following year while America was involved in two major wars of aggression (Afghanistan, Iraq) and was pursuing a militarized foreign policy of global scope involving navies in every ocean, hundreds of overseas bases, and the potential weaponization of space. It still seemed plausible in 2009 to suppose that only a charismatic American leader possessed the will and ability to forge cooperative solutions serving the human interest in response to global challenges. The United States at its best managed to combine the pursuit of its national interests with some sense of responsibility for upholding global interests. This role was played by the United States with varying degrees of success. It has been a characteristic of world order since 1945.

 

In the months after his inauguration as president, Obama seemed to share this sense of historic mission by making in the Spring of 2009 rather visionary speeches in Prague proclaiming a commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons and then in Cairo about turning a new page in the Middle East, including exerting pressure on Israel to create finally the political basis for resolving the conflict. Unfortunately, all too soon it became apparent to all who observed the scene that Obama was a president committed to the continuity of American global power and influence, and not at all ready to engage in battles against entrenched forces that would be required to achieve global justice. On both the Middle East and nuclear weapons Obama quickly yielded to those who insisted on the absoluteness of Washington’s support for Israel and gradually showed his willingness to appease the American political establishment that was far more interested in modernizing the nuclear weapons arsenal than considering prudent moves toward its abolition.

 

On a global scale, the failure of all efforts to heed the warnings of climate scientists to curb carbon emissions on an urgent basis or continue the trend toward global warming with dangerous intensifications of its attendant harms. Conference after conference each year under UN auspices have exhibited the inability of states to cooperate for the global common good to nearly the extent called for by a prudent response to what the scientists are saying about climate change. What prevails in these gatherings of over 190 states is the unwieldy interplay of national interests, and a grim recognition that the only practical way forward is to rely on the voluntary pledges of governments, and in doing so, abandoning the goal of imposing ‘common but differentiated’ legal obligations on all states. In effect, this shift to voluntary undertakings gives up any pretense of establishing an effective public order of climate protection. There is no doubt, as has been evident since the failure of the United States to ratify the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the domestic political situation within the country makes it unrealistic to seek a responsible climate change treaty if it makes encroachments on national sovereignty, as it must, as well as likely on profit-making, economic growth, and employment. In effect, the structure of international society based on the interplay of sovereign states and market driven economic actors makes it politically impossible to reconcile patterns of global governance with upholding the human or global interest. This structural reality of statism has become more relevant given the inability of the United States to any longer possess credibility as the chief promoter of global interests of benefit to all peoples of the world.

 

There are also ideological resistances to acknowledging limits with respect to human activity, mainly associated with the persisting strength of nationalism as compared to competing transnational belief systems. As became evident as long ago as World War I, working class solidarity promoted by socialist values was no match nationalist sentiments supportive of European colonial interests overseas. In effect, political leaders of states, whether democratic or authoritarian, are products of political cultures that continue to be shaped by the predominance of nationalism. Such a reality underscores growing tension between the human exploitation of the natural environment and a variety of threats to ecological sustainability.

 

Pope Francis as an Agent of Global Revolution

 

It is precisely here that Pope Francis’ entry upon the scene has potential revolutionary consequences. In line with this, it seems entirely appropriate that his most concerted commitment to date is to awaken the world to the menace of global warming arising from unchecked climate change. The Vatican has announced the Pope’s intention to issue a major encyclical that will set forth an authoritative statement of the Catholic Church’s thinking on climate change. This will be followed by a speech to the UN General Assembly in the Fall and after that, by a Vatican call for a global summit of religious leaders drawn from around the world. What the Pope brings to the table is a meta-political promotion of the human interest that has so far been absent from all efforts, including those of the UN, to meet global challenges. In this sense, mobilizing the pope’s Catholic base and reaching out to other religions is the kind of global leadership needed to have any prospect of fashioning the sort of robust response to climate change that is needed with growing urgency.

 

I have long believed that within each of the great world religions there exists an ongoing struggle between sectarian and universalist tendencies. Both tendencies can draw on their respective traditions to support contradictory claims about the nature of the core religious message. What is exciting about Pope Francis is that he seems to be moving the most globally constituted and influential world religion in a distinctly universalist direction at an historical time when such an orientation is directly related to building a positive future for the peoples of the world, and even more generally, for the human species and its natural habitat. Whether he is able to attract other religions to exert their influence in similar directions remains to be seen. As has been already observed, there are some influential doubters within his own Catholic hierarchy, seemingly threatened by his assaults on their bureaucratic positions of prestige (he has notably accused the Vatican Curia of ‘spiritual Alzheimer’s and a ‘funereal face’) and privilege associated with its proper custodial role of administration and the protection of the traditions of the Church. Some forces within the Catholic hierarchy hostile to Pope Francis’ ministry are allied with predatory political and economic interests. It has also been reported, for instance, that the great majority of Christian evangelists are deeply suspicious of this pope’s emphasis on climate change as arising from human activities. They even accuse Francis of propagating a ‘false religion’ by undermining their religiously based belief that global warming and extreme weather are clear signs of an approaching apocalypse rather than being negative byproducts of a fossil fuel world economy.

 

There is a further concern. Even if the religious summit is a glowing success, it will not by itself exert a sufficient impact on the political system to get the job done, given the hegemony of the state structure of world order and its supportive nationalist ideology when it comes to the adoption of global policy norms. Overcoming statist resistance will only be brought about if religious pressures are backed up by a transnational mobilization of people, a popular movement that alters the political climate within which leaders of states act. We need to remember that even the most inspirational of religious leaders does not have access to the policy mechanisms at the disposal of sovereign governments that alone have the ability to solve problems through institutionalizing cooperative action. Only with a surge of bottom-up politics can there be mounted a sufficient challenge to status quo forces resistant to change.

 

Note should be taken of the relevance of the US-China Agreement (Novemeber 2014) to place certain modest limits on carbon emissions, less for the substance of what was agreed upon by these two governments that account for about 50% of the buildup of greenhouse gasses, then to illustrate that if a populist movement calls for change and is then reinforced by the top-down initiatives of the dominant geopolitical actors, it becomes much more likely that a prudent globally oriented policy on climate change will finally emerge. Most optimistically viewed, the US/China agreement could be a breakthrough if it heralds a recognition by these dominant political actors to combine their pursuit of national interests with assuming geopolitical leadership in defining and promoting the global interest, thereby merging 21st century humanism with geopolitics.

 

Of course, what makes Pope Francis’ presence on the global stage so welcome extends beyond climate change. It involves the entire gamut of global justice issues. It represents a dramatic move toward what might be described as ‘moral globalization.’ It challenges the statist character of world order, the nationalist hold on the political imagination, and the predatory manipulation by neoliberalism of our wants and desires. In the end, what is being offered is a spiritual and cosmopolitan alternative to human fulfillment and the meaning of life. Such a worldview is not presented through an exclusivist prism of Catholicism, but rather through a renewed nurturing of the deep roots of the human condition. These roots include a coevoultionary reenchantment of nature as the indispensable bio-political partner of humanity in the work of safeguarding this planet against the rising dangers of ecological implosion. Such a realignment of fundamental attitudes also involves subordinating the technocratic and calculative sides of modernity to more holistic cosmopolitanism. This will involve reestablishing contact with the deeper emotional and spiritual sides of our being mainly lost in the modern quest for a scientifically validated technocratic salvation.

 

At a time when there are many strident voices insisting that religion is irrelevant or worse, the example and messages of Pope Francis offer cosmopolitan hope. It has never been more important to counter the widely disseminated view that religion is inherently responsible for political extremism, and more destructively, to blame Islam as a religion for sociopathic violence when the culprits are Muslim. True, religious doctrine can be twisted to serve any values, however demonic, as can secularist thinking.

Obama’s Legacy: “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff”

6 Jun

 

 

            So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be for the century to come….The question we face..is not whether America will lead but how we will lead, not just to secure our peace and prosperity but also to extend peace and prosperity around the globe.

 

                        President Barack Obama’s Commencement Address, West Point, May 22, 2014

 

            I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also, I am myself just as evil as good, and my nation is…

Walt Whitman

 

 

            Cautioning against militarism at West Point President on May 22nd Obama in a speech mostly notable for its reassertion of what might be best understood as imperial nationalism of global scope declared the following: “Just because we have the best hammer [that is, military dominance] does not mean that every problem is a nail [that is be selective].” Remembering the failure of military intervention in Iraq, positive about achieving a possible diplomatic breakthrough in Iran, and burned by the paucity of results from his strongly endorsed troop surge in Afghanistan early in his presidency, Obama is reminding the graduating cadets, the future commanders of the American military organization, that leadership on the global stage should no longer be conceived as nothing more than a hard power geopolitical game. Interpreted in context, such a statement can and should be appreciated as an embrace of what some call ‘smart power’ shaping policy by a careful understanding of what will work and what will fail, that is, exhibiting a sensitivity to the limits as well as the role of military power in pursuing the American foreign policy agenda.

 

            For the wildly hostile Republicans such language is warped to justify their attack on Obama’s foreign policy as wimpy, exhibiting a declinist mentality that is partially admitted by the sleazy phrase used by the White House during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, ‘leading from behind.’ The Republicans, resorting to their typically irresponsible hawkish opposition rhetoric, chided Obama for not proceeding to bomb Syria after alleging that they had crossed the red line in 2013 when chemical weapons were used in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta resulting in heavy civilian loss of life. From such neocon perspectives America only loses wars when is loses its nerve. From this perspective every failure of military intervention since Vietnam exhibits not the limits of hard power, but the refusal to do what it takes to achieve victory by which is meant a mixture of weaponry and fortitude. Fortunately, most often when in office the Republicans have a record of finishing the wars that Democrats start. This was what Eisenhower did in the Korean War, and Nixon in the Vietnam War. Republicans bark more often than they bite, while Democrats do the opposite.

 

            Obama’s rejection of mindless militarism is most welcome, but insufficient. Given this American record of demoralizing defeats, those on the right end of the political spectrum should feel reassured by his ultra nationalist language used to describe America’s global dominance: “Our military has no peer. America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…our economy remains the most dynamic on Earth…Each year we grow more energy independent. From Europe to Asia, we are the hub of alliances unrivaled in the history of nations.” Recalling the oft-quoted boast of Madeline Albright, Obama went on to insist, “So the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation. That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.”

 

            To exhibit national pride is understandable for a political leader, but the absence of any expression of national humility creates an overwhelming and deeply troubling impression of hubris, especially when the speaker heads the biggest military power in history and his country has its forces spread around the world so as to be ready to strike anywhere. We should be aware that for ancient Greeks hubris was a tragic flaw that makes the powerful complacent about their points of vulnerability and hence destined to freefall from dizzying heights to swampy depths. Such an interpretation is reinforced by Obama’s vision of the place of war making in American foreign policy: “The United States will use force, unilaterally, if necessary, when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger.” What is so stunning here is the absence of any even pro forma acknowledgement of a national commitment to carry out foreign policy in a manner respectful of international law and the authority of the United Nations. Deeply disturbing is Obama’s contention that war might be the appropriate way to go if “our livelihoods are at stake,” which seems to revive the dreams of economic imperialists who seize resources and safeguard unjust enrichment from foreign resources.

 

            With words that echo those of George W. Bush, Obama admits that “[i]nternational opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our homeland and our way of life.” If America should never ask, is that true for others, for say Russia when it protects its homeland and way of life in Ukraine? To be fair, Obama does seem to qualify his unilateralism by saying that before leaping into war “we still need to ask tough questions about whether our actions are proportional and effective and just,” but these lofty sentiments are coupled with the glaring omission of the words “and legal.” Obama does advocate “appeals to international law” in the speech, but revealing only as one of several tools of American diplomacy that might be useful in mobilizing allies to join in multilateral recourse to military action against common adversaries.

 

            Toward the end of the speech Obama removes any ambiguity about the kind of prideful realism that he appropriates for the United States, and implicitly disallows to others, acknowledging lofty pretensions on a truly global scale: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional in not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” Are we stupid? After lauding militarism and unilateralism early in the speech only later to give this Wilsonian spin to the more self-serving meaning of American exceptionalisn the Obama language exhibits a disturbing blend of confusion and hypocrisy. Even the slightest familiarity with America’s use of force in international life over the course of recent decades, including during the Obama presidency, would lead any close observer to conclude that the only honest way to identify American exceptionalism is above all its “ability to flout international norms and the rule of law.” And not only ability, willingness as well, whenever expedient (consider global surveillance, drone warfare) from the perspective of national interests to engage in combat.

 

            As always there is in Obama’s comprehensive statements some visionary language meant to be uplifting. For instance, what he describes as the “final element in American leadership: our willingness to act on behalf of human dignity.” Where exactly? In response, to the oppressive rulership of Sisi’s Egypt? In relation to the civilian population of Gaza so long victimized by Israeli collective punishment? The only plausible answer to the first of these questions is ‘where and when it suits American interests, and not otherwise.’ In fairness, could be expect otherwise in a state-centric world.

 

            There is an awkward reference in the speech to Egypt that makes a mockery of any talk about human dignity and a foreign policy responsive to the claims of justice. Obama employs a strange phrase, perhaps to convey the sense of awkwardness, by starting his explanation of policy with the words “in countries like Egypt.” Such a phrase implies that there are other such countries, which itself seems dubious. We do not receive any hints as to which countries he means to include. Possibly Obama is referring to all those states with deplorable human rights records whose leaders are guilty of crimes against humanity in relation to their own citizens, but whose orientation is favorable to the West. Obama goes on to imply some misgivings about the positive American relationship with Egypt, “we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests, from peace treaties to Israel to shared efforts against violent extremism.” And then with hypnotic indifference to the tension between words and deeds, he explains, “[s]o we have not cut off cooperation [read as military assistance] with the new government, but we can and will persistently press for reforms that the Egyptian people have demanded.” How should we deconstruct this combination of reassurances and pressures to establish democracy, the rule of law, and human rights? I would say to paraphrase Obama that this strikes me as a callous example of ‘following from behind.’

 

            On such other issues as terrorism, drones, Iran, Syria, and Ukraine Obama affirms mainstream foreign policy positions with nothing new, not daring to endorse any initiative that would break fresh ground. There were some obvious opportunities that would have created a bit of credibility for the basic claim made by Obama that America, and America alone was capable of providing the world with benevolent leadership. Surely, Obama could have proposed that Iran join in an effort to end the war-threatening atmosphere relating to Syria and in view of Western objections to Iran’s nuclear weapons p. Or suggest that Israel’s refusal to stop settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem had doomed, once and for all, any hope of a negotiated and just end to the search for peace in Palestine and Israel that would benefit both peoples instead of voicing mild disapproval and stepping to one side. Or welcome the formation of a unity government that could finally represent the Palestinian people as a whole. Or recognize the complexity of competing national claims in Ukraine, acknowledging that the West as well as Russia was responsible for escalating tensions, thereby inhibiting prospects for a mutually beneficial accommodation. Or Obama might even have chosen such a moment to revive his 2009 Prague initiative by proposing that the time had come to table a draft treaty of nuclear disarmament.

 

            Such innovative steps would have stirred excitement as well as compromise, controversy, and debate. Such moves would have at least encouraged the hope that Obama’s vision of American leadership meant something for the world beyond a watered down neoconservative global agenda. To be sure, it is less belligerent in language and policy than what was being advocated during the Bush presidency. The Obama outlook is certainly more receptive to partnership, alliances, and multilateralism in managing global affairs. Ironically, the Obama conception of American leadership is depressingly similar in some of its essential features to the commencement address given by George W. Bush at West Point twelve years earlier: We were good, they are evil. Terrorism is the main security threat. We will act as we wish when our security and vital interests are at stake. No signs of deference to international law or the UN unless it reinforces American foreign policy. When American policies are challenged, it is up to the political leadership to decide what is right and wrong, but governments that are adversaries of the West should continue to be judged and punished by international procedures, including the International Criminal Court. No humility, and no retreat from the global projection of force as an American entitlement that others welcome.

 

            Perhaps, after all Hilary Clinton was right when she taunted Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign: “If you can’t stand the heat get out of the kitchen.” To clarify, not the heat that Clinton meant, but the heat that would be generated if Obama made a serious attempt in these last years of his presidency to translate his visionary language into concrete policies that addressed injustices and disciplined American foreign policy choices by an acceptance of the authority of international law and the UN. One can only daydream about such a legacy for the presidency of Barack Obama. Instead rather than the legacy of forbearance that he seems determined to leave behind, summarized by his own self-professed operating logic—‘don’t do stupid stuff.’